As yoga continues to gain popularity, many of us are exploring ways in which we can use the practice to address musculo-skeletal imbalance, chronic tension and even prevention or rehabilitation of an injury. When a client comes to me with a musculo-skeletal issue such as lower back pain, as a yoga therapist I will often explore a variety of factors – their physiology, lifestyle factors that may be contributing to the problem and even their mental and emotional state. From a physical perspective, at a fairly simplistic level there are two main questions I ask when addressing an injury.
- What muscles are tight or shortened, tense and overworking?
- What muscles are weak, overstretched, underworking or inactive?
Yoga has the capacity to not only address tight tissues through dynamic movements and sustained stretches but also strength, stamina and stability in the weakened tissues. In order to build strength in yoga we need to consider three simple factors:
1. Choose simple poses – think poses such as locust, bridge, forearm plank, handstand against the wall. Oftentimes the best strengthening poses are relatively simple in form but deliver the biggest bang for their buck.
2. Practice with skill, precision and good alignment – this will ensure that you are getting the truly intended benefits of the pose. Consider what muscles you are trying to access and ensure these muscles are engaging as you practice the pose e.g. in chair pose can you feel your glutes firing? If not, consider how you might improve the alignment to make that happen, for example, shifting your weight further back into your heels.
3. Repeat frequently – building strength and stamina is often about repeating simple motions or postures again and again until you feel a pleasant level of fatigue in the target muscles. This will enhance stamina, endurance and tone in the muscles.
When it comes to muculo-skeletal issues in the lower body our sedentary lifestyles are causing great imbalances and weakness, leading to what is often referred to in personal training circles as the Lower Cross Syndrome. Sitting for long periods of time manifests as weak glutes and abdominals, and tight (but also often weak) hamstrings and hipflexors. The following Lower Body Strength Yoga Sequence is designed to strengthen and stabilise the hips with poses targeting the glutes, hamstrings, quads and hip-flexors. I have found a sequence that works on building strength in the glutes to be particularly helpful for clients who are struggling with lower back pain or knee problems.
I’ve dabbled with weight training for a number of years but I’ll be honest if I had a choice between a weight-training session or yoga, yoga would win every time. That said, I do think strength training is a key part of maintaining a healthy, happily functioning body and whether I’m working with private clients or teaching group classes, strength and conditioning work is a major theme in my teaching.
One of the things I see as a yoga teacher are the consequences of weakness in the body which can lead to musculo-skeletal imbalances, chronic tension and pain. We are so sedentary these days that the major muscles of the spine, hips and abdominals tend to weaken and atrophy leading to lower back problems, neck and shoulder tension and gait issues.
It’s at this point that we might be tempted to practice yoga, but if we’re not bringing strength and conditioning work into our practice we might very well end up exacerbating or at best ignoring the very weaknesses that we bring to the mat. Combine this with our current obsession with images of extreme flexibility and range of movement, and we run the risk of doing ourselves more harm than good. Make no mistake, big ranges of motion require a corresponding level of strength in order to keep your joints healthy and to avoid injury.
I’d like to share with you a simple yoga sequence for building more upper body strength, particularly in the shoulders, upper back, lower back and abdominals. I’ll be teaching many of these poses in my upcoming September 6-week Yoga for Strength & Conditioning Course.
For a printable version of the sequence please click here. Enjoy and be sure to breathe! 🙂
Thanks to Tummee for the amazing yoga sequence builder!